As if it were an early Christmas present, the best news in a rather despairing 2020 broke yesterday, when the UK’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced Britain has become the first country to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for widespread use.
But the good tidings don’t end there. The first 800,000 of 40 million doses ordered are already on their way and could be in hospitals with facilities to store the vaccine at –70C as soon as next week. The first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, confirmed that “the first vaccines against Covid will be administered in Scotland on 8 [December]”, if they arrive as expected.
The UK government has been able to claim such a milestone thanks to special regulations allowing the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) to approve the vaccine for emergency use before 1 January 2021, when the regulator is set to become fully responsible for medicines authorisation in the UK after Brexit.
As it happens, despite Hancock’s assertion yesterday morning that early approval of the vaccine was “because of Brexit”, the reality is that European Union laws also allow other member states to approve medicines for emergency use without authorisation by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
Both No 10 and the MHRA were quick to contradict the health secretary’s claim, citing section 174 of the UK’s Human Medicines Regulations, which permits the rapid licensing of medicines without the EMA’s authorisation in the event of an emergency such as a pandemic.
Others have been quick to criticise Boris Johnson’s government for trying to frame the breakthrough as a huge “national” win for Britain. The German ambassador to the UK, Andreas Michaelis, stressed the importance of “European and transatlantic” efforts to get the vaccine ready to be administered, while others have cautioned ministers against political posturing, given the huge task before them.
His upbeat tone notwithstanding, the prime minister actually refrained from boasting a British triumph during a Downing Street news conference on Wednesday evening. Johnson warned people against getting “carried away with over-optimism”, and emphasised that the good news doesn’t mean “the struggle is over”, not least because of the “immense logistical challenges” that remain in getting doses to risk groups. Indeed, it will be months before restrictions are lifted, which will in turn require much persuading millions of people to accept the vaccine’s quality, safety and efficacy.
However, it would seem recovery is now at least within reach. If mass immunisation programmes prove successful in protecting the most vulnerable here and abroad, there are reasons to be hopeful about the possibility of rapid economic growth in the months and years ahead. If and when that moment comes, we’ll do well to remember the solution was conceived in the spirit of cooperation and scientific achievement.